Driving in Maine’s North Woods – What You Need to Know

So you’re planning a trip to Maine’s North Woods, the area east of The Forks, north of Greenville, and west of Millinocket and Baxter State Park. This is paper company land, a huge tract of land containing dirt logging roads, trees, mountains, rivers, ponds, and lakes. They don’t call it “God’s Country” for nothing.

gods country
The sign just outside Kokadjo, Maine.

Paper companies in Maine allow public access to their land for recreational use; and with that, people have countless opportunities for hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, boating, or just going for a scenic drive. There are few places east of the Mississippi like Maine’s North Woods.

Your trip requires planning, however. Driving through the North Woods is a whole other kind of road trip that most people don’t realize until they’ve actually done it. Whether you’re planning to rent one of our ATVs, explore by vehicle from our Katahdin Base Camp, or strike out on your own adventure, there are some things you should know. We’re here to help.

Helpful Hints for Driving Maine’s North Woods

  1. The dirt roads can be confusing. Your typical road map will not help. There are very few road signs, and the signs that do exist are typically hand-painted and tacked to trees. Your GPS, assuming you can keep an uninterrupted connection, won’t exactly guide your way either. Google Maps on your phone? Don’t even bother trying.
  2. The dirt roads can be dangerous. These roads are privately owned logging roads, which means logging trucks have the right way. Picture driving down a narrow dirt road, wondering if you’re going the right way, and then seeing an eighteen wheel tractor trailer truck, loaded with logs, a massive cloud of dust behind it, cruising straight at you at fifty miles an hour. This is exactly what happens. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a soft shoulder in which you can pull over- so pay attention, drive slow, and be ready. There’s more! The condition of the roads is always in question. Graders drive over the roads trying to keep them maintained, and when they do, they churn up sharp, jagged shale that can slash tires. Oh – and don’t forget the deer and moose hanging out in the middle of the road. That could “crash” your North Woods party real fast.

    A blown out tire along the road.
  3. Help is not on the way. By most people’s standards, when you are in the North Woods you are in the middle of nowhere. That’s what attracts people to the woods in the first place, but safely enjoying that solitude requires a certain level of self-reliance. There are no convenience stores where you can stop to ask directions; there are no gas stations to top off your tank; there are no police, fire, or rescue services readily available. Depending on the particular dirt road you’re on, you could go for hours (or longer) before ever even seeing another vehicle.
Left, right, or gone too far? Maine’s North Woods logging roads.

Danger in the Maine North Woods – True Stories

There are countless stories of things going wrong in the Maine North Woods. The most well-known story took place way back in July 1939, when twelve-year-old Donn Fendler made national news after he disappeared from Baxter State Park and was lost in the woods for nine days. He eventually authored the book Lost on a Mountain in Maine.

More recent, well-publicized stories include the 66-year-old woman who was hiking the Appalachian Trail, got lost, and lived for 26 days before eventually dying. There are other stories that happen almost weekly, however; like this news article of two women whose SUV struck a rock that punctured the oil pan. Ten game wardens began a search before a pilot found them stranded on a remote road. From the article:

Game wardens said people traveling on remote roads should use extra caution, be prepared with the proper gear and understand that cellphone service is limited in those areas. Game wardens have responded in the past week to multiple calls about cars broken down or stuck on back country roads.

Shale along the road that can slice through tires.
Shale along the road that can slice through tires.

My stories include a relative who had a heart attack while camping near Moosehead Lake’s Spencer Bay. He had to be rushed by pickup truck to the hospital in Greenville. Another story involves a group trip where one individual’s truck got a flat tire not once, not twice, but three times. Snowmobiles use the roads in the winter, and studs from snowmobile tracks come off and remain on the road. They are similar to road spikes. He used my tire repair kit for the first two flats, and for the third, he had to combine the glue from the repair kit with a bit of duct tape he stuck in the tire’s hole (yes, it worked).

This isn’t meant to scare you away from your trip. Again, they don’t call it “God’s Country” for nothing. There is no other place quite like Maine’s North Woods. We offer this information only so you go properly prepared…

Preparing for Your Maine North Woods Trip

So what does it meant to be “properly prepared” for a trip into Maine’s North Woods? It comes down to two things: your mind and your gear.

Your Mind

You need to have your wits about you. You need to plan ahead. You need to be smart.

  • Tell someone exactly where you’re going and when you plan to come back. No one is going to know to come looking for you if they don’t know you’re missing in the first place.
  • Allow extra drive time in case you go off course and need to backtrack. If you’re new to the route you’re taking, it’s also wise to not get stuck driving at night. That’s when you’re apt to buzz right past trail/road markers, and it’s also when you’re more apt to come across large animals standing in the road.
  • Pay attention! It’s easy to let your mind wander when you’re driving down a road and it’s just trees upon trees upon trees. Watch your odometer, remember your turns, etc.
  • Know how to change a flat tire (and hope you don’t have to).
north woods vehicles
Four-wheel-drive vehicles aren’t a requirement, but they don’t hurt.

Your Gear

You can make smart choices and still have something go wrong. For that reason, it helps to have the right equipment with you just in case.

  • Extra Food and Water – You don’t need a week’s worth of groceries, but have extra food and water on-hand should your trip take an unexpected turn and you’re gone longer than you thought.
  • Tire Repair Kit – This should be obvious by now.
  • Small Air Compressor – Once you plug that tire, how are you going to put air back into it? Get a small compressor that plugs into your vehicle for power.
  • Jumper Cables – You could leave your lights on and run your battery dry, or someone else might and you could save the day.
  • Extra Gas – Fill up at the last gas station available, and bring an extra five gallons – just in case.
  • Handheld GPS – These aren’t cheap, and they’re not critical, but they sure are nice. You can track your route and zoom out to find your location.
  • Maine DeLorme Atlas – I know I said that your typical road map won’t be of much use in the North Woods, but the ubiquitous DeLorme Atlas is a staple for every Maine explorer. It won’t solve every problem, but it might help you orient, or – if you know where you are – at least tell you what body of water or mountain you’re looking at.

Exploring Maine’s North Woods is a one-of-a-kind experience. Plan ahead, load up your vehicle, and have fun. You just might see a moose!

What do you bring on your dirt road drives? Share your recommendations below!


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6 Responses

  1. Bring Toilet Paper and paper towels! A blanket is helpful for picnics, enjoying the nature around you, and helpful if you get caught out over night.

  2. Thank you for this great information. My family and I live in Fairfield and we frequent Northern outdoors often. My question is: where exactly is a good place to get on a logging road? Where should I start? I want to take my 4 x 4 truck on a dirt road….but how can I find them? I know that’s a weird question! Thank you!! Are there any off 201?

    1. My favorite route is Route 201 through The Forks, and before crossing the Kennebec River into the West Forks go right on Lake Moxie Road. Once you get to Lake Moxie, go left down the Dam Road… then a right on Brochu Road. This will bring you to Greenville and is a nice drive. Of course- turn around if roads are bad, and I’m not sure if it will be plowed in the winter! There are other dirt roads off Route 201 as you head to Jackman!

    1. Will pass that question off to local law enforcement… catch the Sheriff’s office at (207) 474-9591! 🙂

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